The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

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Everything You Know Is Wrong

My adolescence was profoundly shaped by hours alone in my room listening to comedy albums, memorizing them—George Carlin and Richard Prior. My aunts and uncle also introduced me to the comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose Everything You Know Is Wrong may serve as the ideal message for educators.

Recently, Jessica McCrory Calarco reported in Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test:

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

And from Science DailyStudy finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective:

A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that “growth mindset interventions,” or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort — and therefore improve grades and test scores — don’t work for students in most circumstances.

Also consider Will Thalheimer’s People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible—learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale’s Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Yet another example is the zombie that will not die, the “word gap”—debunked again in Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds, by Douglas E. Sperry, Linda L. Sperry, and Peggy J. Miller:

Abstract

Amid growing controversy about the oft‐cited “30‐million‐word gap,” this investigation uses language data from five American communities across the socioeconomic spectrum to test, for the first time, Hart and Risley’s (1995) claim that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their middle‐class counterparts during the early years of life. The five studies combined ethnographic fieldwork with longitudinal home observations of 42 children (18–48 months) interacting with family members in everyday life contexts. Results do not support Hart and Risley’s claim, reveal substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum, and suggest that definitions of verbal environments that exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.

But let’s not forget higher education: Arthur G. Jago asks Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?, discovering:

Frustrated, I ended my search for the bibliographic equivalent of “patient zero.” The original source of the fantastical claim that the average academic article has “about 10 readers” may never be known for sure.

So what’s going on as educators and scholars are confronting that everything you know is wrong? I think have some ideas, outlined below:

  • Teachers, notably K-12 educators, are practical to a fault. Teachers want what works in the day-to-day tasks of teaching students (a more than reasonable expectation) but often feel educational philosophy and theory are a waste of their very limited time (again, this time-crunch is a rational response to unreasonable working conditions for most K-12 teachers). The problem with a what works mentality absent a philosophical and theoretical lens is that the wrong basis for determining “works” often guides our practices. As a brief example, many classroom strategies can seem to “work” when students are quiet and complete the assignment, but those may be achieving compliance and not the larger (assumed) academic goal—actually working counter to those goals in fact.
  • Too often teaching can become almost entirely focused on implementing a program (think reading programs or International Baccalaureate) or fulfilling an ideology (think grit and growth mindset) at the exclusion of the instructional goals those programs or ideologies are supposed to achieve. This happens, I think, in part because of the concern for practicality noted above as that is impacted by the historical focus in education on efficiency—what is the easiest and most manageable ways to make this think called teaching and learning happen?
  • Programs and ideologies, however, are often flawed from the beginning because the research they are grounded in is distorted and oversimplified by publishers and advocates. Compounding these oversimplifications and distortions are the media, also complicit in framing complex research in ways that mislead the public and educators. Too often as well, the misconceptions are compelling and robust because they match social norms (stereotypes, biases, cultural myths) more so than reflecting the nuances and limitations of the research. As I have detailed, for example, academic and economic success and failure are far less about any person having or not grit or a growth mindset and more about systemic privilege and disadvantage.
  • Classrooms, teachers, and students are more likely to reflect all aspects of communities and society than to work as change agents for any person or community/society. Teaching and learning, then, become about normalizing, and thus, regardless of what research shows (especially when much of that research is counter to norms), it becomes a tool for the normalizing. One study on the “word gap” by Hart and Risley has become an unexamined fact, not because it is quality research (it isn’t) but because it reinforces cultural myths about social class, deficit ideologies that praise the wealthy and demonize the poor.
  • Teaching and learning are incredibly complex and the consequences of teaching—learning—are rarely easily linked to a single cause (a teacher, a class, a program or ideology) and may not manifest themselves until years later.
  • Too many researchers, consultants, administrators, and teachers become personally, professionally, and financially invested in programs and ideologies—at the expense of everything else, notably students.
  • From K-12 to higher education, teaching and learning are mostly corporatized; in that environment, research, nuance, and uncertainly have no real chance. K-12 schools and universities/colleges are incentivized for many outcomes other than teaching and learning.
  • Educators, the public, and the media embrace contradictory ideas about “scientific” and “research”—simultaneously idealizing and trivializing.

In the big picture, I think the problem of research and evidence as that becomes teaching practices can be better understood through the lens of what is wrong with Teach For America—an organization that very likely has good intentions and invites as well as promotes missionary zeal.

Good intentions are never enough, and missionary zeal is guaranteed to distort everything it touches.

It may well be true that everything you know is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it must stay that way. Good intentions and missionary zeal must be replaced by greater philosophical awareness and the sort of skepticism a critical lens provides.

This is not about fatalism—giving up on research—but about finding a better way forward, one that rejects programs and blanket ideologies and keeps our focus on students and learning along with the promises of formal schooling as a path to equity and justice, not test scores and compliant students.

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

In one of the last class sessions of my education foundations course, a student I had taught in a first-year writing seminar the semester before posed a question while being nearly exasperated: To paraphrase, she wondered allowed why education had such a problem with how classroom practices often contradict what the research base shows is (for lack of a better term) best practice.

Since I have repeatedly addressed in my public and scholarly work Lou LaBrant’s masterful charge about the historical (and current) “considerable gap” between practice and research, I chose to help walk students through unpacking her question by asking them first who controlled the fields of medicine and law.

We tended to agree that doctors and lawyers mostly (although certainly not exclusively) had the greatest authority and autonomy in their fields.

By contrast, education in the U.S. is primarily public institutions at the K-12 and higher education levels, and thus, education as a discipline is significantly barricaded from education as a practice by legislation, bureaucracy, and a public discourse dominated by disciplines other than education—economics, psychology, and political science.

Embedded in that bureaucracy, we must also note, is the authority of administrators, a subset of eduction as a field that is in many ways disconnected from pedagogy, if not antagonistic to teacher autonomy.

Education as a discipline, then, suffers under the weight of being routinely declared a failure as well as an inadequate field while simultaneously being denied authority and autonomy in its practice, the very thing being used as evidence of its failure.

So, in 2018, we have yet another example of the on-going problem in the so-called publication of record on the field of education, Education WeekWhen It Comes to Public Education, the Nation Is Still at Risk.

Thomas Toch grounds his commentary is a praising and uncritical embracing of A Nation as Risk—although that report has been thoroughly discredited as a partisan hatchet job masquerading as research (see Gerald Holton here and here as well as Gerald Bracey).

Few things better represent all that is wrong with education as a discipline and profession than how A Nation at Risk (as a partisan political sham) came to drive policy by claiming “research” and “scientific” while being any but.

But the relentless bashing of education and then teacher education certainly did not stop with the rise of standards and high-stakes testing in the form of the accountability movement after Reagan; it was reinvigorated under W. Bush, and then Obama doubled down even further.

No Child Left Behind took its cue from A Nation at Risk, in fact.

This brings me to a recent Twitter discussion representing the reading wars debate that will just not die.

Let’s join that sort of in media res with Daniel Willingham refuting some claims made by Carol Black quoting from my blog post:

This Twitter exchange holds almost all of the elements I am confronting in this post: the disciplinary arrogance of economics, psychology, and political science (disciplines that routinely impose themselves in education as if the field dose not exist); the veneer provided by claiming “research” and “scientific” among hard-core phonics advocates; and the irony of the “research” crowd embracing partisan reports that fail as credible research.

First, let me clarify that I have taken a very clear stand against how the media embrace scholars from outside the fields of education and literacy when they arrogantly impose on those fields—for example, Willingham and Mark Seidenberg.

Next, it is illustrative that Willingham’s rebuttal of my criticism, in fact, provides proof of my point: His NYT’s op-ed is both a sweeping discrediting of teachers (since teacher educators are teachers) and, as Toch does, Willingham offers an uncritical embracing of the National Reading Panel (NRP), a partisan hack job powerfully refuted by Joanne Yatvin.

The NRP report serves a different purpose than it intended since it represents how partisan politics combined with unchallenged claims of “research” and “scientific” provide cover for everything that is wrong with the discipline of education being blocked from having authority and autonomy in the practice of education, specifically how reading is taught in US public schools.

If you skim through the discussion after I responded to Willingham, you also witness the problems with the cult of phonics, how advocates for phonics simultaneously beat the drum for “research” and “scientific” while refusing to engage with the field of literacy and reading in an honest way.

For example, whole language and balanced literacy are misrepresented and then those misrepresentations are attacked. Both whole language and balanced literacy are evidence-based approaches to teaching reading that include phonics instruction (just as writing pedagogy includes grammar instruction); however, phonics advocates typically frame them as hostile to phonics as well as not supported by “research” (something dishonestly posed by the NRP).

In other words, this Twitter debate exposes that far too often educational research and practice are highjacked for partisan political and ideological concerns as well as bureaucratic and market ones (phonics advocacy is significantly driven by the textbook and testing industries, for example).

If we return to my student’s question that is echoes in this Twitter debate grounded in Willingham’s sweeping dismissal of teacher education, we are faced with a real dilemma.

LaBrant’s charge that a “considerable gap” exists between evidence and practice exists today, but not in the way or for the reasons stated and implied by Willingham.

Literacy as a sub-discipline of education is not bereft of research, and it is not populated by incompetent professionals who do not know or teach that research base.

Education and literacy scholars are often women, and at its core, the fields suffer from some of the lingering sexism that hovers just beneath why economists, psychologists, and political scientists feel compelled to speak over education as a discipline.

Concurrent with that uncomfortable fact, however, is a damning dynamic captured in Applebee and Langer’s analysis of writing instruction in formal schooling; they concluded something that also explains virtually every problem found in why so many are compelled to declare education a failure: Applebee and Langer discovered that although teachers today know more than ever about best practice in teaching writing (and despite the field of composition being more robust than ever), teachers overwhelmingly disclosed that they are not able to implement that knowledge because of the mandates anchored in standards and high-stakes testing.

As I argued in the Twitter debate, whether or not teacher educators of literacy are teaching as Willingham wants, it doesn’t matter because when teachers enter the field they are being mandated to teach to the tests that measure standards. Teachers in the US have very little to no professional autonomy.

So I want to circle back to the more narrow issue of balanced literacy, a concept rejected by phonics advocates.

At its core, balanced literacy is about having highly expert teachers of literacy who then have the professional autonomy to individualize instruction for all students so that every student excels in literacy.

Intensive phonics programs and textbooks as well as isolated phonics testing (such as DIBELS) are the antithesis of that expertise and professional autonomy—just as the standards and high-stakes testing machine is.

I am not at all dissuaded from my not-so-modest proposal that all disciplines deserve their own autonomy and professionalism, that education has been denied that autonomy and professionalism because of sexism and the corrosive influence of bureaucracy and partisan politics.

This recent Twitter debate captures all that in a way that is relatively concise with many players inadvertently proving my points.

But, alas, I am not hopeful of having made any progress because, you know, I am but a lowly education scholar and practitioner, one mired even lower in the field of literacy.

Sigh.


For Further Consideration

Please note that, like economics, psychology has much to do to keep its own house in order; maybe slamming other disciplines serves as distraction:

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

 

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Let’s Not Fail School Safety as We Have School Reform

[NOTE: This was submitted to and rejected by The State. I find that the articles and commentaries on gun control and school safety are mainly absent evidence/research, and too often the media allows unsupported claims to some because of status, not credibility. See this horrible commentary, for example.]

Political and public responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida are poised to make the same mistakes we have witnessed concerning school reform for four decades: focusing on in-school policies and practices only while ignoring the social impact on schools as well as the research base on those policies and practices.

As one example, Will Britt argued (The State):

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening…: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

And a letter to editor a couple days later suggested: “The only answer is to secure the schools like other government buildings. The shooters know schools are largely gun-free zones that have no immediate defense.”

However, the research base on security measures offers chilling facts about these solutions:

There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.

In fact,

Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption and higher levels of disorder in schools.

For example,

Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.

While adding security measures is a compelling emotional (and politically effective) argument, those measures may create a false sense of security and even increase the likelihood of violence. This parallels the abundance of evidence that more guns do not make us safe, but create more gun violence.

Equally important but often unmentioned, increased school security measures are typically racially biased and unfairly target black and Latinx students, even when these populations are not more violent.

US crime rates are below normal in international comparisons, but mass shootings, school shootings, and gun violence are all extreme outliers when compared to those counties. The US also has a much higher rate of police shooting and killing citizens (see Germany).

We once again face the harsh reality that, yes, the amount of guns and easy gun access are at the source of why mass and school shootings have become common place in our country, but not in other countries.

Consider that other countries have mental illness and all the complications associated with formal schooling, suggesting that these factors cannot be blamed for our gun violence. Notably, people with mental illness are less violent than the rest of the population but are far more prone to being victims of violence.

Yet, mass shootings and school shootings have more than guns in common; most of these tragedies can also be linked to angry white males who feel a sense of privilege, once combined with easy access to guns results in the loss of innocent lives.

The Parkland, Florida shooter’s violent outburst also confronts us with a truly disturbing message since the shooter himself had gone through active shooter training and knew better how to stalk his victims. Again, implementing safety measures are unlikely to make students safer and can even put them in worse danger.

Ultimately, we must resist the fatalism that gun control will not work, or that there is nothing we can do. I cannot stress enough that other countries have effectively curbed gun violence and school shootings.

As Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson, and Sam Rocha conclude, “instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.”

More guns mean more violence, in society and schools. Gun-free zones are one approach worth considering for in-school solutions, but that simply will not be enough.

Each mass and school shooting in the US is a damning lesson we seem to refuse to learn, and as long as we focus on school policies and practices while ignoring the cancer of our larger gun culture as well as the research on what works and what doesn’t, we are doomed to mourning more needlessly lost lives.

Political, public, and media negligence is complicit in those tragedies.

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality:

 

Testing, the Problem Not the Solution

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where being a runner is held in high regard, well above students’ aptitude in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Teacher A at XYZ Elementary School takes her third-grade class out to the school track, lining them up to run the 100-meter dash to set a baseline of data for determining the fastest runners in the class.

Across town at ABC Elementary School, Teacher Z ushers her third-graders to the high school to establish her baseline data, sending off these children on 2 laps of the 5K cross country trails.

Mid-year, Student J transfers from XYZ Elementary School, where J had placed 1st in the initial 100-meter dash, to ABC Elementary School just in time for the year-end 10K to assign final grades.

J had excelled all year in the 40-yard dash, but floundered at the 10K, not able to finish the run and receiving an I for third grade, thus was retained.

In this brief allegory, we should confront the realities about high-stakes testing that are often muted by our blind faith in the perennial existence of tests such as IQ testing, state standards-based testing, and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT:

  • Regardless of standards, curriculum, textbooks, or even what teachers teach in the classroom, as Gerald Bracey has warned: What you test is what you get (WYTIWYG).
  • The testing format and context (see above the 100-meter dash v. a 10K) have a significant impact on the outcomes; in the thought experiment, which student is labeled a “fast runner” changes because of the type of test, not necessarily the abilities or even effort by the teachers and the students.
  • Pre- and post-testing are not as effective or fair as we tend to assume—notably since the real world includes a great deal of transient students. (Caution: A universal set of standards, curriculum, and tests may solve this problem, but cannot address the first two bullets above.)
  • What is tested and how are always political decisions by some authority in power. This confirms that all testing is political and that no testing is objective or neutral.
  • Testing is always reductive (giving evaluative power to a limited but claimed representative set of acts over behaviors that require more time and greater nuance) and serves mostly goals of efficiency, not goals of authenticity.

Now let’s turn to the soap opera that is education reform, fatally committed to the accountability paradigm (ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests—all promised to be better than those before, even as those before were declared the best ever)

First, let’s visit Chicago, PARCC pushback prompts Illinois to remake controversial test for 3rd-8th graders:

Math and reading exams known as PARCC spawned angst and outright rebellion when the tests launched in 2015, ushering in a new era of state testing in Illinois public schools.

But that new era appears to be short-lived, with this spring’s PARCC exams possibly the last for the state’s third- to eighth-grade students, educators say.

Here is yet one more brick removed from the crumbling wall of Common Core—a standards revolution that guaranteed world-class standards and tests that would usher in a new era of education reform across the U.S.

Next, and related, while the Common Core wall crumbles, and the concurrent rush to hold teachers accountable for student test scores on those Common Core tests flounders, one of the primary advocates and funders of the Common Core disaster has been Bill Gates and his foundation.

Interesting to note, then, that once again, as Nancy Flanagan details, Gates has changed his tune in the wake of his most recent promises failing:

Looks like Bill Gates, having totally solved the common standards problem, mastered the vexing “teacher evaluation using student test data” challenge, and designed right-sized schools, is now moving deeper into the heart of what has traditionally been teachers’ core professional work. Curriculum, that is.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

And third, even internationally, the default urge in education reform is not only new testing, but more: Setting more exams to combat stress among school students is utterly absurd.

As I warned three years ago, Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

In fact, educators for well over three decades have warned that accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing has never been the appropriate reform mechanism for the core problems facing universal public education: crippling inequity in both the lives and formal education of the most vulnerable students.

Tests, then, are the problem and not the solution.

Tests are a distraction, keeping our gaze on students and teachers and away from the inherent inequity of the tests themselves—instruments of those in power who decide what matters and how by what is tested and how.

In education, the problem has never been about the quality of tests (or standards, or curriculum, or textbooks) but about the presence of those tests and the power they wield.

We remain trapped in refusing to learn the bitter lessons from chasing better tests.


See Also

Thinking about Tests and Testing: A Short Primer in “Assessment Literacy,” Gerald Bracey

Seventeen reasons why football is better than high school, Herb Childress